Even though Miami-Dade families saw income rise 10 times faster last year than the national average, the county has a long way to go.
Miami-Dade households still rank near the bottom among the nation's largest counties.
In the city of Miami, the trend is similar. It is the fifth-poorest big city, according to a Census Bureau report released Tuesday.
Broward County fared better, with a median income above the national average and growing.
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For the first time, the Census report included a ranking of income inequality known as the Gini Index. Again, it was not good news for Miami-Dade.
The county tied for 10th place with Denver among counties with the widest gap between rich and poor. Areas with worse income disparities include New York; Washington, D.C.; Westchester County, N.Y., and Charleston, S.C. Broward ranked 65th out of 244 large counties.
AN ALARMING PICTURE
Daniella Levine, executive director of the Human Services Coalition in Miami-Dade, said that while the improvement provides some good news, the overall picture remains alarming.
''The biggest question here is the income inequality,'' she said.
``We've known about the poverty problem here for a lot of years. What we are seeing now is a shrinking of the middle.''
The percentage of Miami-Dade residents living below the poverty line dropped to 16.4 percent from 17.8 percent in last year's report. In Broward, there was virtually no change from 11.1 percent in 2005 to 11.2 percent in 2006.
According to the federal government, 2006 poverty thresholds were $20,000 for a family of four, $16,600 for a family of three, $13,200 for a family of two and $9,800 for individuals.
The city of Miami's poverty ranking went from third to fifth, a slight improvement over last year. Miami has been among the country's 10 poorest cities for at least a decade, even hitting the No. 1 spot. The city had the second lowest median income last year, ahead of only Cleveland.
Experts have noted the erosion of the middle class in South Florida on two fronts: the cost of living and poor wages.
High homeownership costs make it hard for middle-income earners to live or relocate here. Those with low incomes find the area's other high costs a barrier to breaking into the middle class.
In the most recent local inflation report, food and beverage prices hit their highest level in six years. Costs for shelter, which take into account rent, mortgage prices and insurance, saw their largest increase in 25 years.
''It's encouraging that the median incomes are up, but it is only certain sectors that are benefiting,'' Levine said. ``What we have to do is make everyone in the community understand inequality hurts everyone. Fisher Island can't survive without the workforce from Liberty City or Little Haiti.''
Economists caution that the Census data is a year old and does not reflect the region's housing slump and its downward pressure on wages.
Still, the higher income levels are a sign that in notoriously low-wage South Florida, employers are starting to pay more.
Companies in industries as varied as architecture and banking say they have offered salaries as much as 10-percent higher in the past two years to bring qualified workers on board.
Gary Lanir, a vice president with Eastern Financial Credit Union, said the Miramar-based financial institution started paying about 10 percent more two years ago.
''As the cost of housing started to dramatically escalate, we saw the difficulties that people were having,'' Lanir said.
The credit union offers pension and 401(k) retirement plans for full- and part-time workers but is constantly looking for tellers to staff its banks.
Kobi Karp Architecture and Interior Design has offered all its workers regular annual raises of about 3 to 5 percent. But principal Kobi Karp said the company, which wants to hire additional project managers as well as creative and interior designers, has paid as much as 10 percent more to attract people with substantial experience.
''I would still offer the highest dollar in the market to get the best quality personnel in my office,'' said Karp, whose Design District-based company focuses on building hotels and resorts.
Moody's Economy.com's Per Gunnar Berglund, who focuses on Florida, said it's no surprise that in a market where workers are hard to find, employers are forced to pay more.
He thinks that the jump in Miami's wage rates is also an attempt to catch up with the rest of the country.
Miami-Dade's jobless rate averaged 3.8 percent last year. Broward's was 3.1 percent. Both are well below the national average and near historic lows for the area.
Although there is some controversy about the exact percentage, many economists consider rates at that level close to ''full employment'' -- when everyone who wants a job has one.
''When unemployment falls, that in itself tends to enhance income inequality,'' Berglund said.